Mandatory Housing Affordability—Reflections on Crown Hill

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On Monday, March 18, the Council will hold its vote and likely approve the MHA legislation, which has been years in the making.  Included in that legislation are a set of amendments that I made to the Mayor’s proposal for the Crown Hill neighborhood.  Before I explain those amendments, let me first explain some of the core principles I attempted to uphold as we worked through the amendment process.

The Mandatory Housing Affordability framework’s purpose is to require that all new multi-family and commercial development contribute to affordable housing, either by providing affordable housing in new projects or paying a fee so that the City can build commensurate affordable housing nearby.  From the beginning, there have been three main principles that have been critical to me:

  • No new development in multi-family and commercial zones should be exempt from the requirement to provide affordable housing either through direct construction or paying a fee.
  • The boundaries of all urban villages be adjusted to include all properties within a ten-minute walk of frequent transit.
  • All properties within an urban village be zoned for a higher density than our single-family zoning.

I am pleased that the amended piece of legislation that came out of committee generally holds true to these three principles.

For many urban villages, the changes are rather modest because they are already zoned for significant density, but some urban villages are seeing significant changes.  In District 6, the Crown Hill Urban Village is one such place.  Crown Hill has seen a significant increase in transit access in recent years with the establishment of the Rapid Ride D line and increased service on routes 40 and 45, so the legislation included a substantial expansion of the urban village boundaries.  There was also a significant number of single-family zoned parcels in the existing urban village and in the expansion area that are all proposed to be rezoned.  Because of these significant proposed changes, a group of neighbors began organizing and formed a group called the Crown Hill Urban Village Committee for Smart Growth.  They reached out to me over a year ago wanting to understand how community members could best be involved in influencing the outcome of this legislation and we have been working together ever since.

In addition to my principles above, I feel strongly that a neighborhood should play a significant role in deciding how they would like to see their community grow, as long as principles of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative are upheld.  This includes reducing racially disparate impacts, lifting up all voices including folks often left out of the conversation, and that the vision for the neighborhood included opportunities for new people to move in.  We wanted to have a dialog not about if growth should happen in Crown Hill, but how growth should happen.  So we got to work.

Over the course of the last year I have had multiple meetings both in Crown Hill and at City Hall with residents from Crown Hill.  We shared information about existing zoning and the proposals under the Mayors MHA legislation.  We worked to better understand the demographics of the neighborhood and how it has changed in recent years.  We went on walking tours to look at and discuss the conditions on the ground today and identify places people wanted to see changes, areas people hoped to preserve, and talked about all the things beyond zoning changes that will impact what happens in the neighborhood.  Throughout our work together, community members were thoughtful and proactive about reaching out to many of the apartment buildings in their neighborhood to solicit input from renters.  They also created an online survey so they could gather feedback from folks who couldn’t attend the meetings.

Through this process, I became much more informed about the needs and desires of the community.  While Crown Hill has frequent transit, it remains a 45-minute bus commute to City Hall. (That is only about 10 minutes quicker than a bus commute from Everett.)  They showed me where there are significant urban flooding events in the neighborhood, and we got Seattle Public Utilities to start working on a plan to address those needs.  We collaborated with leaders from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways on planning the new greenway connecting to Robert Eagle Staff Middle School.  I also heard about more of the commercial businesses they hoped to attract to the neighborhood, and the existing businesses the community wants to support and retain.  One result of all this work is a city supported community planning process that began last year and will continue through 2019.

We all recognize that how we changed the zoning in the neighborhood is an important piece of the puzzle. Using the Mayor’s proposed MHA legislation as a baseline, we talked about what neighbors liked in the proposal and where they had concerns.  Like every neighborhood, there are a lot of voices and they don’t all agree, but the leaders did a great job of ensuring all voices were welcome, worked to build consensus where possible, and highlighted where different opinions remained.  I also made it clear that based on my principles, I was open to proposals that shifted where and how growth happened, but would not significantly reduce future growth and opportunity in Crown Hill.

The key themes I heard over the last year included:

  • A strong interest in seeing many of the commercial spaces redevelop along the 15th corridor into a pedestrian friendly commercial district and away from an auto oriented development pattern
  • Concern about displacement of existing renters
  • Interests in the different kinds of opportunities posed by the proposed low-rise and residential small lot zoning types.

I heard from blocks were currently single family and homeowners are excited for an opportunity to redevelop in a low-rise zone and other blocks where homeowners are more interested in the possibilities provided by a Residential Small Lot (RSL) zone where they could stay in their existing home and build a second home on their property to accommodate growth.  And of course, there were blocks that included people with a variety of different opinions.

All of this led me to propose a set of amendments that added a couple stories of development capacity for additional housing along a number of blocks in the commercial core, maintained or made adjustments to Low Rise zones where it was consistent with my principles and community consensus, and on a number of blocks adjusted the zoning from Low Rise to Residential Small Lot where it seemed the best opportunity to simultaneously preserve some of the existing housing stock while allowing additional homes to be built or new duplexes and triplexes to be created.

I am thrilled that these amendments were all successful and will now be part of the final MHA bill we will vote on next week.  The package of amendments as passed out of committee can be seen on this map.

I believe that the net result of the changes I proposed in the Crown Hill Urban Village will still have similar development capacity as the original proposed legislation, but the specific zoning has been tweaked to better reflect much of the vision that I heard through a neighborhood led, inclusive and open process.  Not everyone got what they wanted, in part because not everyone in the neighborhood wanted the same thing.  But I want to lift up the amazing work that the volunteers with the Crown Hill Urban Village Committee for Smart Growth did in creating a positive outcome for their neighborhood and the entire city.  It is a model that I hope the city can support in other communities that will see significant changes in the future.